The Tree of Pearls: Egypt’s 13th century queen

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Shajarat Al-Dur is among the quaintest and most picturesque streets in the small Cairene residential island Zamalek, nestled in the middle of the Nile. Today, the name conjures up little more than the street canopied with flowering, towering trees, but Shajarat Al-Dur is a name that signifies much more.

(photo: Erin Salokas/TNN)

Islamic scholars discuss the figure at length, discussing her rise as a pivotal expression of a slave uprising, and her strength in the face of the growing Mongol threat and the demise of the Abbasid Empire. Feminists place her on a pedestal as a prime example of female leadership during a time and from a culture that is easily deemed misogynistic. The lore surrounding her death has become a common anecdote, although her achievements have unfortunately been largely forgotten with the passage of time.

Book cover of “The Ambition of Shajarat Al-Dur” by Ibrahim Mohamed Al-Jamal

Shajarat Al-Dur, the Arabic name meaning ‘tree of pearls’, was a girl born in modern day Armenia into a Turkish family belonging to a larger tribe called the Bahri Mamluks. The term Mamluk is one that may be familiar, as they became the rulers of a significant part of the proto-Ottoman Empire, yet the term literally means those who are owned, which is to say slaves, or more typically, mercenaries. Not long after the Mamluks became the primary source of security, and therefore power, within the empire, they took control from the ruling dynasty, and Shajarat Al-Dur would become their queen.

Yet before the Mamluks came to power in 1250, the Ayyubids were the local rulers of Egypt, upon the fall of the Fatimids in Egypt in 1171. The Sultan at the time, the last of the Ayyubid dynasty, Sultan Al-Salih Najm Al-Din Ayyub, became progressively more dependent on the bought Mamluk army, which was necessary to protect from internal and external power struggles in the region. One of the Mamluk slaves he purchased was the same young girl who would become the mother of his child, afterwards become his wife, and eventually be hailed the Sultana of the Mamluk dynasty.

Illustration of an Egyptian Mamluk

Shajarat Al-Dur’s ascendance to the throne was not without luck, but historians never fail to emphasise her great poise and prowess in oratory and other skills that made her a charismatic leader. With that being said, it is true that the ashes left in the wake of both the Mongol invasions and the Crusades, compounded by the crumbling vestiges of the Umayyad and Abbasid factions of the Islamic Empire, left a cultural vacuum where antiquated aristocratic socio-political structures were rendered obsolete.

Following Al-Salih’s death in early 1249 from an amputation gone awry, Shajarat Al-Dur became the de facto ruler of Egypt. She called on Salih’s son Turan Shah to take his place, but he proved unfit for the job and was assassinated by Mamluk generals, who in turn called on Shajarat Al-Dur to become their queen. As this was in the midst of the Seventh Crusade, it happened that in July 1249, King Louis IX of France landed in Damietta, located at the mouth of the Nile. Under the leadership of Shajarat Al-Dur, the French army was defeated, and Shagarat Al-Dur’s true yet brief rule began.

19th-century illustration, “Landing of Saint Louis in Egypt.”

During her three-month reign as Sultana, Shajarat Al-Dur asserted her place as the female ruler: minting coins featuring her inscription, and decreeing that Friday prayer sermons at the great Al-Azhar Mosque invoke her name.

Shajarat Al-Dur’s minted dinar

However, when word reached the Abbasid Caliph Al-Musta’sim Billah of the female Egyptian leadership, he condescendingly offered the Mamluks to send them a man if they were in short supply.

The Abbasids did not accept Shajarat Al-Dur as the Sultana of Egypt, and therefore sent one of their own generals, Izz Al-Din Aybak, to take the reins in the early summer of 1250. Despite the wishes of many of the Mamluks, they nonetheless needed legitimacy in the face of their counterparts in the Abbasid East and the region as a whole.

Though this was not the end of Shajarat Al-Dur, who upon being deposed married the new Sultan. For seven years they lived in solitude, and Izz Al-Din was often away in the Levant combating the Syrian Ayyubids who had maintained control in Damascus and Aleppo. In his absence, Shajarat Al-Dur stayed on as the ruler, if only in name.

The plot thickened when, in 1257, Izz Al-Din wanted to take a second wife, a decision considered unacceptable to Shajarat Al-Dur. Rather than sacrifice her dignity, she hatched a plan to have her husband killed. The scheme was carried out, and her husband was stabbed to death during a routine visit to the bath house, or according to some accounts possibly while he was en route to the Salah Al-Din Citadel. Legend has it that an astrologer even foretold that he would die at the hands of a woman.

Sultan Saif Al-Din Qalawun seated on the throne with the corpse of Izz Al-Din Aybak at his feet. (engraving: G. Dore)

The crime did not go unpunished, as the Sultan’s guards and his ex-wife learned of her culpability, and so had her executed on 28 April 1257. The story goes that Shajarat Al-Dur was brought to Izz Al-Din’s former wife and her servants, who then proceeded to beat Shajarat Al-Dur to death with their wooden clogs. Her body was then flung onto the ramparts that lay outside the Cairo Citadel, where it remained for several days before being removed; a spectacle on display to remind passers-by how dissension was punished.

Wooden clogs similar to those that may have bludgeoned Shajarat Al-Dur

The remains of Shajarat Al-Dur were then buried in a mausoleum in what is now Old Cairo, the construction of which she herself commissioned. Today, the Shajarat Al-Dur Mosque still stands.

Shajarat Al-Dur Mausoleum

A popular movie was made about the life and times of Shajarat Al-Dur in 1961, called “Oh Islam,” starring Tahiya Karioka.

Tahiya Karioka as Queen Shajarat Al-Dur

During her reign, Shajarat Al-Dur was famous for having established several universities in her name. Even today, on the same serene Shajarat Al-Dur street in Zamalek, one of her old palaces now houses the famous Faculty of Music Education, perhaps the most famous music school in Egypt today. It also teaches ancient Egyptian music. The school was first opened in 1935 under the name the Institute for Girls, but eventually allowed boys to join as well. By 1975, the building was given its current status as the Faculty of Music Education, a department of the famous Helwan University.

(photo: Erin Salokas/TNN)

Shajarat Al-Dur’s story lives on in the heart of Cairo, even if the residents aren’t aware of it. As a country of such a rich history, countless tales of heroines we will never know of took place, and they surround the collective Egyptian experience. Some have even said that there is a tree in Zamalek through which Shajarat Al-Dur speaks to us until today. The tree is only a few hundred metres away from the street named after her, and is said to have been built per her posthumous instructions, where the road is diverted around her, splitting around the trunk of the tree. Wild stories aside, it is an uplifting sentiment that the strong woman who once ruled Egypt still resides in the country we know today.